A new alliance of Syrian opposition groups has inflicted some serious defeats on Bashar Al Assad’s regime, giving a new sense of purpose to the opposition. The regime’s resilience had started to give the impression that it might survive and even dictate peace terms to the opposition.
But things have changed with events in Syria’s north western province of Idlib leading the way. A wide range of opposition groups came together last month to capture military bases in Wadi Al Deif and Al Hamadiyeh in the south of Idlib province; and then take the capital, Idlib city; and then swiftly capturing the strategic town of Jisr Al Shughour close to the Turkish border, opening the possibility of a direct attack on the neighbouring province of Latakia, the heartland of the regime’s supporters.
At the same time, in the south of the country, regime forces lost control of the main crossing-point on the Jordanian border at Nassib, further alarming the government at the scale of its on-going losses. This was compounded by a widely-viewed leaked video showing a popular commander at Jisr Al Shughour, Col. Suhail Hassan, known as “The Tiger”, begging his superiors on his mobile phone to send ammunition and help, as Jim Muir reported on the BBC.
The crisis in both the north and south of the country was so serious that for the first time since the war began four years ago, Al Assad felt the need to publicly acknowledge the setbacks while seeking to shore up morale.
The operations displayed impressive new coordination between rival factions, who range from the US-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) to moderate and conservative Syrian Islamists and even the Al Qaida affiliate Jabhat Al Nusra and several independent factions, as reported by Charles Lister of Brookings Institute.
The religious groups fought alongside the secular FSA, which may have played a minor role in the advance into Idlib city itself, but was crucial in preventing regime reinforcements from going to the city’s defence and also played a significant role in the capture of Jisr Al Shughour.
The involvement of FSA groups reveals how the factions’ backers have started to agree that they have to work with Islamists. Several commanders involved in leading recent Idlib operations confirmed to Lister of Brookings that the US-led operations room in southern Turkey, which coordinates the provision of lethal and non-lethal support to vetted opposition groups, was instrumental in facilitating their involvement in the operation from early April onwards.
That operations room — along with another in Jordan, which covers Syria’s south — also appears to have dramatically increased its level of assistance and provision of intelligence to vetted groups in recent weeks.
Lister attributes this change to pressure from the newly emboldened regional alliance comprising Turkey, Saudi Arabia with its new King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz, and Qatar — all of which have been working in Syria to support the opposition for some years without much success. He also highlights the new need for the United States to find ways to prove its continued alignment with its traditional Gulf allies, amid the broader context of its rapprochement with Iran.
The question is whether this new alliance can last and how it may translate into the political sphere once the opposition forces start to govern the territories they capture. There is no doubt that the groups currently successfully fighting together have very different political views.
A ceasefire would require two main factors to be in place (amongst many others). First, there would have to be a broad sense of military equilibrium under which, all sides must feel that they had fought to a standstill and the only way forward was political. Second, Al Assad would have to go, which is where the problems start. The opposition is clear that it will not deal with him, but could work with a successor from inside the regime. The Iranians are the only people who may persuade Al Assad that it is time for him to go, as they may be coming to the end of their willingness to invest vast resources in their Syrian project.
The Iranians are currently talking to the Americans over the nuclear issue, which gives plenty of opportunity for a side conversation about removing Al Assad. The Americans would be delighted to find a regime that the opposition could talk to and establish some kind of political future and the Iranians may also be looking for a post-Al Assad future in Syria.
But the Saudis play an important role in Syria’s opposition and they will be loath to seeing Tehran garner any credit that may allow it to maintain some kind of position in Damascus when the fighting is all over. The Saudis would like to see the Iranians out completely, so they may differ from the Americans in the need to engineer a rapprochement with the regime (with or without Al Assad), preferring to see the opposition remove him utterly, leaving no obligations to Iran. All this makes for lots to talk about in Camp David this week, when the Saudis and their Gulf Cooperation Council allies meet US President Barack Obama.